The family of a correctional officer killed during the Feb. 1 uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center’s Building C has sued the state of Delaware in federal court for wrongful death, saying state officials failed to address simmering security concerns at the Smyrna facility for 16 years—concerns that boiled over in the takeover.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware by the family of Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., as well as five other officers who survived the 18-hour siege.
In the 52-page complaint, attorneys from Jacobs & Crumplar and the Neuberger Firm traced the state’s blame back to the administration of former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2001, but also named as defendants former Gov. Jack Markell, three former commissioners of the Delaware Department of Correction, current Commissioner Perry Phelps and three directors of the Office of Management and Budget.
The attorneys announced the suit Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Westin Wilmington on the Riverfront.
According to the filing, the state officials under Minner hid “severe understaffing” at the prison from lawmakers and the public, even as security there began to deteriorate. By 2004, crucial officer training was eliminated and demands for changes went unaddressed, the complaint said.
The issues came to light in a 2005 report on an “unprecedented security breakdown” that led to the brutal rape of a female counselor at the prison the year prior.
Still, Floyd family attorneys said, the concerns were ignored, and the situation only darkened under the watch of Markell, whose eight years in office ended in January. During that time, the state refused to fill a critical shortfall of correctional offices and opted instead to use forced overtime to plug the gap, they said.
According to the complaint, the overtime budget ballooned from between $13 and $14 million to $23 million during the Markell years. By 2015, DOC employees were working a total of nearly 800,000 hours of overtime, the document said.
“That is the equivalent of needing an additional 470 employees,” attorneys Thomas C. Crumplar and Raeann Warner wrote. “As of early 2017, almost 40 percent of the staffing at DCC was filled by correctional officers working overtime.”
In the fall of 2016, there were at least 25 assaults reported against prison employees, and specialized prison security teams were unable to perform random sweeps for weapons and contraband as a result of Markell’s “money saving” measures, the complaint said.
In their filing, the attorneys drew a straight line from the depletions to the DOC’s ranks and the violent takeover that left Floyd dead earlier this year.
According to the complaint, there were no surveillance cameras operating in the building at the time of the attack, and an influx of dangerous violent offenders a year ago had left prison staff outnumbered and exposed, the complaint said.
“It was widely discussed among the employees, staff and management at [JTVCC] that Building C was unmanageably dangerous and had become a powder keg that was about to explode,” the lawyers said.
According to the complaint, the lapses allowed inmates to obtain forbidden weapons and conduct “dry runs” for the eventual uprising, in which prisoners took four DOC employees hostage and barricaded the building.
Three hostages were released with nonlife-threatening injuries, but Floyd was found unresponsive and pronounced dead just after authorities finally retook the building in the early hours of Feb. 2.
“Defendants’ actions demonstrated a protracted failure even to care. They failed to act upon these great risks of harm due to deliberate indifference, gross negligence and recklessness. Additionally, they acted intentionally and arbitrarily,” the attorneys said. “Defendants’ actions shock the conscience.”
Gov. John Carney, who took office just weeks before the takeover, was not named as a defendant in the suit, but the complaint alleges that he violated prison policy by intervening to stop a rescue attempt, less than an hour after the attack had gotten under way.
According to the complaint, Warden David Pierce had “given the go ahead” to retake the building around 11:30 a.m., but Carney halted the rescue attempt, for “presently unknown reasons.” The decision reportedly “enraged” Pierce, who has since been reassigned to the Bureau of Community Corrections.
A spokesman for Carney did not comment Tuesday on why that decision was made or what factors were being considered at the time.
“We cannot comment on pending litigation,” said Jayme Gravell, a DOC spokeswoman. “[H]owever, Commissioner Phelps is working hand-in-hand with Governor Carney and members of the General Assembly to further ensure the safety and security of DOC facilities.”
The complaint also details the chaos that ensued inside the prison walls after inmates in Building C staged a fight to lure officers into their trap.
A female counselor and three officers, including Floyd, were taken hostage in the ambush. Two officers—Winslow H. Smith and Joshua Wilkerson—were badly beaten, handcuffed and shoved into a closet, while inmates set fires just outside. At one point, an inmate unlocked the door and threw a flaming blanket onto Wilkerson, though Smith was able to extinguish the blaze.
Smith and Wilkerson were later released to hostage negotiators, and the counselor, Patricia May, was rescued when tactical teams breached the building with a backhoe just after 5 a.m. the next morning.
Three more officers were forced to barricade themselves in a basement until they could escape to the roof.
The complaint also credited Floyd, who was being held in a separate closet, with alerting members of the “quick response team” to the trap. The officers turned back, but according to the complaint, Floyd’s warnings angered his captors, who “brutally and sadistically” beat him as Smith and Wilkerson listened on from their nearby closet.
An autopsy later revealed Floyd was the victim of a homicide, but the state has refused to provide further details about his death or when he may have succumbed to his injuries. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the DOC and former armor tank crewman in operation Desert Storm, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor and promoted to lieutenant in the weeks following his death.
He is survived by his wife Saundra M. Floyd and his three adult children. Thomas and Stephen Neuberger and Crumplar and Warner, of Jacobs & Crumplar, are representing the Floyd family and the surviving DOC officers.
The Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Justice are heading a state investigation into the uprising, and the DOC is conducting its own internal investigation. Charges have yet to be filed as the criminal probe is set to enter its 12th week, and officials have declined to provide updates on its progress.
Carney has also announced an independent review by former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely and former Family Court Judge William L. Chapman Jr. That inquiry was scheduled to launch after the criminal investigation was complete, but Carney last week said that it would run concurrently with the state efforts, “given the duration of the criminal investigation” and the governor’s “sense of urgency surrounding this issue.”
The advocacy group Delaware Coalition for Prison Reform and Justice has also called for a federal investigation into the conditions inside the prison.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages in the case, captioned Floyd v. Markell.